The FX anthology’s first season, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, was a pop-cultural flash point of this larger rediscovery project, restoring to prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson) a thwarted feminist valor. Two decades after Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict, the series transformed Clark’s public profile from the frizzy-haired frump who lost the open-and-shut case of the century to the righteous women’s crusader who seemed to be the only person outside of Nicole Brown’s family properly outraged by the tragic and shocking violence of her killing.
Shortly after “The People v. O.J. Simpson” became a runaway hit — not least for Paulson’s Emmy-winning portrayal of Clark — executive producer Ryan Murphy announced an upcoming season about Monica Lewinsky, adapted from Jeffrey Toobin’s 1999 tome “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President.” But after meeting Lewinsky at a party, Murphy briefly shelved the project, telling the former White House intern, “Nobody should tell your story but you.” “Impeachment” is that opportunity; Lewinsky signed on as a producer and was offered the chance to provide input to head writer Sarah Burgess on “every scene in the series.”
“American Crime Story” is, indeed, mostly from Lewinsky’s point of view. A retelling of the events that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, it focuses on Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford, the only actress among the central trio who feels like she’s playing a real person). Huge swaths play out like a honey-pot espionage tale, though the seducer isn’t Monica or Bill (Clive Owen), but Linda, who purposefully cultivates a friendship with the two-decades-younger Lewinsky, an office mate just transferred to the Defense Department from the White House.
Initially, Linda’s intentions are to get some gossip from Monica to pad her tell-all book about her own years as an office lady at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But when she discovers that she’s accidentally befriended the president’s mistress, she eventually pries enough information to fill a spreadsheet of Bill and Monica’s trysts. (Ew.)
As in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the tone is somewhere between tenderly empathetic and winkingly dishy, highlighting the injustices of the case, as well as the tabloid-friendly details that made the scandal such a headline-generator in the first place. Burgess smartly borrows from Toobin’s book its zoomed-out lens on the many right-wing figures who endeavored toward a curtailed Clinton presidency. Paula’s sexual harassment case gains visibility through her camera-loving activist lawyer, Susan Carpenter-McMillan (a perfect Judith Light), a predator like Linda who hunts in the guise of a confidant. There are Republican players like Ann Coulter (a too-mannered Cobie Smulders); her then-boyfriend George Conway (George Salazar); Matt Drudge (a fun Billy Eichner); and Linda’s literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), who comes up with the idea for taping Monica’s calls. And of course there’s Ken Starr (Dan Bakkedahl), whose investigative team, which calls future Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh a member, had spent four years flailing about in search of a justification to impeach Clinton before learning about L’Affaire Lewinsky.
Burgess’s greatest feat is in judiciously jumping around between 1993, when Linda is unceremoniously ousted from her job at the White House, and 1998, when Monica is exposed to the world as Clinton’s mistress. In this account a pathological narcissist with delusions of grandeur and a severe case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome, Linda is more than willing to throw Monica out with the bath water. (In case her unfeminine grotesquerie wasn’t fully conveyed, the series shows Linda drinking Ultra SlimFast smoothies and eating endless microwaveable dinners alone in front of the TV instead of with her two teenage children, whom she habitually ignores to answer Monica’s sobbing calls.)
But Washington is full of political operatives willing to exploit innocents like Monica and victims like Paula, especially if it means chipping away at the goal of regime change. And in the case of those two young women, they were used by older women savvy enough to play both mother and friend. In Linda’s case, her womanhood also gives her psychological cover, as she convinces herself she’s protecting Monica from a handsy womanizer like Bill.
The willingness of older women to exploit younger counterparts via their sexual histories is a fascinating dynamic — and one relatively unexplored in pop culture. But like most things in “Impeachment,” the framework, once introduced, fails to deepen. After she double-crosses Monica, Linda is seen fretting about the well-being of her friend, but more or less remains a monster by the end of the episodes, at least in the seven chapters (of 10) screened for critics. Monica gets a bit more nuance, reintroduced to us as a child of Beverly Hills who finds it unremarkable to stay at an apartment in the Watergate paid for by her mother (a fantastic Mira Sorvino in a minor role), or to ask one of the president’s closest advisers, Vernon Jordan (Blair Underwood), to use his connections to find her a job in New York on one of the many occasions that she considers leaving D.C.
In the first few episodes, Linda’s Iago-like interventions and our knowledge of everything to come lend the production a thriller quality, a mix of drab office-cafeteria lighting and the hushed tragedy of intimacies betrayed. But Burgess keeps underscoring, to diminishing effect, the same ironies and hypocrisies, such as Linda and Ann Coulter’s performative disgust at the Clintons’ supposed low-classness while doing everything they can to strip the presidency of what’s left of its dignity. And while Monica’s earlier sexual history, revealed in later episodes, provides some insight into her attraction to Bill — an older, unavailable man — she remains, for the most part, whiny and weepy and one-note.
Feldstein made for a charmingly barreling, mini-Leslie Knope-like presence in “Booksmart,” but her limitations as an actor — along with Paulson’s — are exposed by the scripts’ repetitive scenes and underdeveloped characterizations. Feldstein and Owen bring what I assume is an intended blend of romantic foolhardiness, blind horniness and all-around cringe to their banter scenes, and, well, they sure nail that latter quality. On a production brimming with prosthetics, fat suits and accents, Owen impresses with a convincing-enough Southern drawl (at least to this Californian’s ear) and that trademark Clintonian aura of lawyerly evasiveness. When Bill first informs Hillary (Edie Falco) of Monica’s existence, he lies to her about the relationship, and Owen makes visible Clinton’s long practice of making himself believe his own falsehoods.
It’s hard to begrudge the real-life Lewinsky a high-profile reevaluation of her place in American society, or a reassertion of her genuine victimhood at the hands of Tripp; the right-wing cabals who knowingly rendered her collateral damage in their attacks against Clinton; the alternately catty and pearl-clutching media; the sniggering public; and, finally, the president himself, who, in this version of events, uses what Monica has confided in him about her “broken home” to paint her as a would-be bunny-boiler.
“Impeachment” cogently pieces together how Monica became front-page news when she never had to be — how Linda encouraged their relationship and illegally recorded their conversations, how Starr’s team intimidated her into something resembling cooperation and how, ultimately, the man she believed to be the love of her life turned on her to save his political career. The line “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” makes its appearance in a later episode, of course, but more moving than the tear that trickles down Monica’s face is the humiliated blankness that Falco brings to Hillary, who faithfully stands behind her husband. That’s a testament to Falco’s skills as an actor, but it’s also a reflection of the pity, rather than the empathy, that the season tends to elicit about Monica.
I’ll admit I’m often a sucker (and probably the target demo) for these reconsiderations of the female tabloid subjects of past decades, and as the popularity of shows like “American Crime Story” or films like “I, Tonya” suggest, clearly I’m not alone. As an older generation of media gatekeepers have given way, it feels crucial to return as millennial consumers to the figures and narratives that shaped our formative years to rediscover which parts of the story we got wrong and why.
Sure, there’s probably a self-congratulatory impulse in these revisits — hindsight makes know-it-alls of us all — but I’d like to believe that, by recontextualizing these women’s lives, we’re also learning how to make fewer snap judgments about what often turns out to be the worst experiences of people’s lives, and whose traumas we exacerbate through the proliferative powers of the Internet. (Social media also shows me evidence contrary to this wish every half-hour).
But these modern reedits, too, are often just projections, if hopefully more nuanced and sympathetic ones. That’s a reality “Impeachment” inadvertently drives home. If the real-life Lewinsky is okay being portrayed as a simpering mess as she is here — and who wasn’t at age 22? — then all power to her. But it’s hard to take at face value the show’s redrafting of Paula Jones, played by the always-charming Ashford with a wounded eagerness to please that’s calculated to break your heart. Paula’s plight as an unassuming pawn who’s debased by even the right-wing press for her naivete in going to Clinton’s hotel room during his governorship (where he allegedly asked her for oral sex) is hard to square with the real-life Jones, who showed up at a presidential debate in 2016 in support of Donald Trump.
Perhaps, in a later episode, we’ll see Paula turn into something harder than a baby lamb. But so far, that characterization is a reminder that these revisions, too, run the risk of reducing the women they’re trying to “save” into unconvincing archetypes anew. “Impeachment” seems to have done just that.
Impeachment: American Crime Story (90 minutes) premieres Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 10 p.m. on FX.
An earlier version of this article misidentified one of Clinton's aides. The adviser to the president was Vernon Jordan, not Vernon Johnson. The article has been corrected.